At the beginning of the year, Active Root Ambassador Ross set his sights on the Triple Crown of Scottish Ultra Running- running the Highland Fling, West Highland Way and Devil O the Highlands in one summer. Only 185 people have done this before!
Having already completed the Highland Fling, in June Ross took on the West Highland Way, the longest of the the 3 ultras at 95miles. Read on to get an insight into the physical and mental challenge of racing such a distance, including cartoon boulders, Cow Poo Alley and the worst sentence Ross has ever heard...
I’ve been thinking and talking about the West Highland Way Race for longer than I can remember. Its been my absolute 'A' race this year as it is by far the biggest challenge I’ve taken on in my entire running career. 95 miles. 14,760ft of ascent. 35 hour time limit and the longest of the 3 Triple Crown events. Everything so far has been building to this.
The race started at 1am on Saturday 23rd June. After a hectic week of juggling kids, work and race prep, Alice and I headed to Glasgow on Friday afternoon after dropping the kids and dogs with their respective sitters. In an ideal world, we would have gone through in the morning and got ourselves settled earlier in the day but this just wasn’t possible. We got to our guesthouse around dinner time and headed out for a bite to eat at a local pub before going back to the guesthouse and prepping my kit. Alice managed to get her head down for a few hours but i was too wound up to be able to sleep so had to make do with lying down going through my race plan in my head. Peter, my support runner, arrived around 22:30 and we went over some last minute details before i got kitted up and headed to Milngavie.
In comparison to the Fling, the start line was quite low key, which is understandable given the reduced number of runners, and we headed to the church for registration and weigh-in. After registration we had a wander around to pass the time and look for other runners I knew in advance of the start. I managed to catch up with Matt, Marina and Gilly before we were gathered together for the race briefing just before 1am. After the briefing from Ian and Shaun and a minutes silence for the running legend Don Ritchie, we anxiously huddled at the railway bridge and as 1am struck we were off into the darkness.
I was conscious of getting a good steady start where i could run at a comfortable pace without getting dragged into anyone else's too early on so I started about a third of the way into the field. I knew Matt, Marina and Gilly would probably want to start further back and wanted to be ahead of them for the first few miles as it would be easier to slow myself down later in the race and let them catch me than to have to speed up and go looking for them when i needed a friendly face and a bit of chat. The first few miles were all about finding a rhythm and pace that i was comfortable with and before long i found myself heading along the path to the Beach Tree Inn. I really like running at night. There's a lovely calmness to be found with just the patter of feet and and the light of a head torch to guide you through the wilderness. Given the time of year though, i only kept the headtorch on for a couple of hours before it was light enough to see pretty well without it. Drymen came and went quite quickly and the first real test of the route lay ahead. Conic Hill.
I knew that the climb wasn’t going to be an issue as I’ve been up and down it 6 times in the last 6 months and i feel like we are friends now. Unlike the Fling race though, I didn’t want to try and make up time on the descent as i knew it would trash my quads and suffer later in the race so i picked my way carefully down the other side instead of using my usual kamikaze technique. Despite my apparent cautious pace, i got into Balmaha in 3hrs 53mins which was a bit faster than i had intended but i was feeling good so just went with it. I caught Alice slightly on the hop but managed to get a bit of coffee and some crisps and was on my way in around 5 minutes.
I headed out onto the beach path alone but as i tried to temper my pace a bit i was caught by Matt and we ran together for a mile or so. It was nice to have one of my pals alongside me although i thought he would have been better than me at going slow in the early stages. Apparently not! As we ran along the roadside, we heard a familiar voice from behind as Marina caught up to us as well. All of a sudden it was like one of our group recce runs again and we ran along chatting the miles away. The first sign of the midges started to show as we skirted the loch side and headed up the notorious stairs on the way to Rowardennan. If we had been struggling to temper our pace before, then the climb here leaves you with no choice but to slow down! Once we were up at the top though, there was a good running section on the forest path all the way to Rowardennan and surrounded by friends, this section passed really quickly.
I got into Rowardennan in 1hour 57 minutes and was greeted by Gilly’s husband Alan who was marshalling. Another friendly face! I knew that Gilly was still behind me and I would have stood and chatted a bit longer but the midges were really swarming here and i didn’t want to linger. I moved through the checkpoint munching the contents of my drop bag and started out on the road to Inversnaid. Matt had stayed at the checkpoint a bit longer so i left ahead of him but Marina an I left pretty much together and continued through the woods until the trail started to get a little more technical. The loch side section is the one that most runners seem to hate as it slows you right down and requires a lot of concentration, but for me its one of my favourite parts of the course. I love scrambling over the roots and rocks and negotiating steep drops and tight turns. I think that being quite short gives me an advantage too with a low centre of gravity. I pushed ahead of Marina as she opted for a more cautious approach and teamed up with an American couple for a few miles and we chatted about races we wanted to do on each others side of The Pond for a while. I was feeling good at this point and pushed ahead of them also just before we got to Inversnaid.
As I had been concentrating on the trail so much for the last few miles, i hadn’t had a chance to eat that much while running so i made the call to take a seat at Inversnaid and refuel. I felt had been going well for the last few miles so could relinquish a few minutes here. I sat and had a coffee and an energy bar and a chat with the runner who had been stood right beside me at the start line a few hours earlier. As i was finishing my coffee, Marina ran straight through the checkpoint without stopping so i took that as a sign that it was time to hit the road again. I caught her up after a few thousand yards and we scrambled over boulders together again half of the way to Beinglas. I was feeling good in this section (probably due to the coffee and energy bar) and wanted to push on where i could and I was also looking forward to seeing Alice again as it had been a while since Balmaha. I text her when I was a few miles from the checkpoint and she told me that there was a bit of congestion with lots of support crews waiting on their runners. Thankfully the marshals seemed to get it all sorted out though as she was ready and waiting with my porridge and coffee when i arrived 3 hours and 56 minutes after i had left Rowardennan. My plan at the start of the race was to try and eat on the go but to attempt larger meals at mealtimes. This stop was technically breakfast even if it was later than usual at 10:45 in the morning.
Marina still hadn’t caught me when i left the checkpoint but i thought i would probably see her soon as i intended to go slowly out of Beinglas for a few miles as the road climbs for a long period and i wanted to let my breakfast digest. My American friends caught and passed me as i was walking the hills but i managed to keep them in sight and reeled them in again on the downhills. I remember having a bit of a hard time on this section during the Fling, but this time i seemed to find it a lot better. Cow Poo Alley came around quite quickly and was rather disappointingly devoid of cows and poos this time. The climb into the forest was just as laboured as it was on my Fling race this time but I was able to get some good pace going again on the downhills. Once i got to the bottom of the forest track though, I did start to feel really tired for the first time. I'm not sure how much of it was psychological with this being the halfway point (and the end of the Fling route) or how much was due to my lack of sleep the night before the race but I was starting to crash quite badly. I knew Alice was at the checkpoint at Auchtertyre accompanied by the kids and grandparents as well as Peter so i gritted my teeth and pushed on into the checkpoint. I had decided that I wanted to spend a bit longer at this checkpoint just to fuel and see everyone and take a bit of a breather. I got to the halfway point in 12 hours and 21 minutes.
I must have spent about 10-15 minutes at Auchtertyre getting weighed in by John Kynaston and his team and sitting having a bowl of soup and a roll. This was my planned lunchtime meal so again, i didn’t want to rush it too much and make myself sick. I trundled out of the checkpoint at the same time as one of my other recce buddies, Craig Calderwood who was looking a bit worse for wear with some strapping on his knee and a noticeable limp. We walked and chatted for a mile or so before he pushed on as he was meeting his kids down the road at Tyndrum. After Craig left me I was just hit with a wall of tiredness. I was trying to run but my eyes kept closing and i would stumble and almost fall. I stopped and walked for a while trying to shake myself awake. I knew that my lack of sleep on the Friday night was beginning to take its toll as it was now around 32 hours since i had last slept. I don’t remember much about this whole section of the race as i was just trying to keep moving whilst staying awake. I would try looking far away along the trail but found that i would get dizzy. I was much better if i just kept looking at the ground around my feet and kept trying to occupy my mind to keep it awake. I was snacking as much as I could as well just to give my mind something to focus on and my Active Root was keeping me clear of any stomach issues. I stumbled along most of this section, occasionally looking around at the scenery until dizziness took over, until Gilly came running up behind me about a mile away from the Bridge of Orchy checkpoint. Having my running buddy around and someone to talk to seemed to snap me out of my dozy state temporarily and i was able to stick with her into the checkpoint. I knew that the sleep deprivation wasn’t going to go away by itself so i took the executive decision to get into the back of the car and try to have a 10 minute sleep to try and reset my body clock. Alice wasn’t convinced of this strategy but I over-ruled her thankfully. I told Peter that i would need him on the next section and told Alice to wake me in 10 minutes as i lay down and closed my eyes.
I'm not sure I slept at all as i was completely aware of what was going on outside as i lay in the car with my eyes closed but the brief rest seemed to have the desired effect and I got up and headed out of the checkpoint with my support runner 10 minutes later. Alice told me that Gilly was only a few minutes ahead as she had stopped to change clothes and shoes and that Marina had also just headed up the hill. I felt much better than i had coming into the checkpoint and I was glad that I hadn’t let those two get too far ahead. Luckily the next section was a bit of a slow, steady climb so I could go slow while I got my head back in the race and brought Peter up to speed on what had been going on so far.
It was now around 4:30pm and the weather was perfect. Sunny and clear with a slight breeze so it was almost like being out for a walk in the countryside. I had forgotten about Jelly Baby Hill and it came as a welcome surprise to see the dazzling, fluorescent sight of Murdo McEwan at the top of the hill. There was also a guy with a tin whistle, piping out the Superman Theme tune as we approached and I took great delight in whipping off my race top to reveal my Superman base layer underneath. One of the many surreal moments on the course. Putting aside my vegan diet for a second, I gratefully accepted a yellow Jelly Baby and headed onwards. I was obviously tired but still able to break into a decent run occasionally when the path levelled out so Peter and I managed to catch up with Marina, Gilly and their support runners so we had a good little group to chat away with as we took in the surroundings. While I was feeling good, I decided to try and push on a bit from the group and managed to catch up with Craig again as the route began its steady climb up to the Glencoe checkpoint. He still looked like he was struggling a bit and told us that he had been having stomach issues since we had last spoken in addition to his bad knee and general exhaustion. I was beginning to feel pretty exhausted again myself but tried to rally each time we came to a flattish bit of path. Each time though, we only got a few hundred yards before the path began to climb again and there seemed to be no end in sight. I was starting to feel low again and knew that I was going to need another lie down at the Glencoe checkpoint but even getting there was proving to be a real struggle.
Eventually, we came over the top of the (never-ending!) hill and there was a slight drop down into the checkpoint. I was feeling terrible by this point and could hardly even run so the rest of the group passed me on the way in. I knew i was going to lose them if i stopped for a sleep but I didn’t feel like I had any choice. Alice wasn’t keen on letting me stop for too long again but again, i over-ruled her and crashed out in the back of the car.
When she woke me up 10 minutes later, I was cold and starting to seize up so I had some hot food and a coffee and changed clothes. It was around 8pm and I knew we were starting to enter the second night so I opted for warm clothes and made sure to pick up my head torch. I had forgotten gloves so, after some convincing, ended up heading down the hill with a pair of socks on my hands. I might have looked like some kind of fluorescent-clad mental patient but I warmed up pretty quickly as soon as i started running again and was able to discard them without having to explain myself to anyone. As we were running out of the Glencoe checkpoint, I passed Matt who was also just leaving with his support team. He was looking ok (probably better than I was!) but was noticeably slower than the last time I had seen him. I would have like to have stopped to run with him for a while but I wanted to take advantage of the caffeine hit and ploughed ahead while I had the energy. I knew the Devils Staircase wasn’t far away and didn’t want to have another fade before I got there.
I felt we were making good progress for the first few miles but I had forgotten to charge my watch at the Glencoe checkpoint so the battery died soon after. I'm not a tech geek but I hate running without my watch. I am terrible at judging pace and distance on my own so for the rest of the race I wouldn’t have a clue about how fast I was going or how many miles were left until the next marker. Psychologically, this would have repercussions later on. For the moment though, Peter and I were moving quite well and having some good banter on the way. I hadn’t been able to recce this section of the course in advance so I was trying to remember it from the Glencoe Marathon that I had run in 2016. Despite the name, I don’t remember the Devils Staircase being too bad a climb from that race but then again, I didn’t have 70-odd miles in my legs that time. I approached it cautiously, taking multiple breathers on the way up and before long we were at the summit. Its all downhill from here into Kinlochleven! I was still feeling ok at this point and wanted to get into Kinlochleven before it got too dark. Unfortunately, due to my lack of watch, I was just having to guess at how long it would take to get there and the longer the road went on, the more tired and down I felt. Eventually, we spotted the lights of civilisation in the distance and tried to get a bit of a run on to get there. As it turns out, what we saw wasn’t Kinlochleven and we still had miles to go. At the bottom of the hill, the road forked and there was no signage telling us which way to go. As we stood there scratching our heads, a few other runners came from behind us and pointed us in the right direction and after what seemed like an age of running away from where we thought we were heading, we came into Kinlochleven in the dark, nearly 4 hours after leaving Glencoe.
After weigh-in and check-in, I had another lie down in the back of the car and shovelled down some salted mashed potatoes, some coke, some coffee and some strawberry laces which i hoped would give me enough of an energy boost to get my tired body up the climb out of Kinlochleven. I had recce’d the next section a couple of weeks earlier so I was confident that I knew where i was going. As it turned out, I was wrong!
I had been running for 22 and a half hours now and was 81 miles into the race so this was now the farthest and longest I had ever been running for. I had also been awake for around 41 hours aside from my 10 minute power naps so I was feeling absolutely dead on my feet. If i was still breathing and able to move forward though, then there was no way that I was pulling out with 14 miles to go so I dragged myself out of the back of the car and headed for the hills. My sense of humour though was definitely not coming with me!
The climb out of Kinlochleven was tough. In the dark, it seemed to go on much longer than it had on the sunny morning a few weeks ago. The top never seemed to be the top and even when the road levelled out, there always seemed to be another climb. The road underfoot also seemed to be completely different from what I remember. I was stumbling every few yards on the massive rocks and then started veering off the path. I was barely able to keep my eyes open as I moved forward and trying to keep my footing while following Peters ankles with my head torch was proving challenging. Nothing around me seemed familiar and the landmarks that I had in my head never seemed to appear. I was constantly stopping and sitting down on a rock to try and shake off the exhaustion before getting up and trading a few more steps before it hit me again. I was aware that i was starting to mumble nonsense to Peter but couldn’t do anything about it. The lichen-covered rocks on the side of the path started to resemble cartoon characters and abandoned cars and wild animals. I knew it was just the exhaustion kicking in and the need to stop and rest was becoming overwhelming. Thankfully, Peter was gently encouraging me to keep moving forward and not letting me stop for too long, even when i was being unreasonable. He has two young kids of his own so I think he’s used to this!
I had no idea how far we had gone or how slow we were moving but the Lundavra checkpoint never seemed to arrive. Eventually, another runner came up from behind us and I asked him how far we still had to go. I felt like we had been out on this road for hours and must be nearly there by now. When he told me that we still had 12k to go my heart literally broke. I work in miles so by this point my brain was beyond doing that kind of maths but it sounded like an impossible distance. I think I was still having a tantrum when the bonfire at Lundavra appeared in the distance.
We stopped at Lundavra for a few minutes and I had a seat beside the photo booth. It had taken nearly 3 and a half hours to get here and I knew that we still had another 6-odd miles to go. I would have happily stayed there for the rest of the night but I was gently ushered up and away by the marshals and Peter led me up the hill. I was still on the lookout for any kind of landmark that looked familiar from our recce run but there was absolutely nothing. I just need a boost from somewhere to get me to the end now as Peter was literally having to push me forward up the hills whilst holding my race vest to keep me on the path. I felt like he was telling me that every hill was the last one and I was starting to resent being continually lied to. I was still able to run slightly on the downhills which gave me a little encouragement but I just needed to get to the end now.
All of a sudden, we came over the brow of a hill and I recognised the road. We had apparently passed all of the landmarks i had been looking out for and we were now at the top of the winding decent into Fort William. This was what I needed. Instantly, I was able to run again. I knew the finish was at the bottom of this hill. All i needed to do was get there as quickly as possible. Peter stopped at the top of the hill to text Alice our position and I told him to catch me up as i turned the afterburners on and headed down the hill. I must have run those couple of miles around 7 minute mile pace and I passed around 8 other runners on the descent. As I neared the bottom of the hill, Fort William came into view and i kept running as fast as I could down the road. I got to the bottom of the hill and Peter caught up to me as we headed for the car park. Then disaster, the path veered off to the left away from the town and uphill. I didn’t think i had another uphill in me. During our recce, we hadn’t gone any further than the bottom of this hill so i didn’t know the exact location of the leisure centre. Round another corner, then another, then another. Why won’t this race end!
At last we saw Alice waiting at the car park. Thank God I thought. I made it.